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Saints and Strangers: Standing Together in Love (a sermon for a divided country)

Saints and Strangers: Standing Together in Love (a sermon for a divided country)

In 1620 a group of about 40 religious refugees boarded a merchant ship leaving England and sailing for the “new land.” Others called them the “Separatists,” or the “Congregationalists” because of their desire to separate from the Church of England and return to the ideals of the Protestant Reformation. They oh-so-humbly called themselves the Saints. With this, they clearly aligned themselves with the religious cause: they were holy people, distinguished from the “Strangers,” the other people on board the ship who were from some other religion, or perhaps no religion at all.

You know this story–it’s top of our minds this time of year. You know how hard that first winter was for this band of Saints and Strangers. You know about the generosity of time and spirit shown to these immigrants by the Wampanoag tribes. It’s a story many Americans have historically celebrated. When told rightly, it reminds us that the USA wasn’t just built on grit and perseverance; it was grounded first on hospitality and generosity.

We’re sorely in need of that reminder.

Today, our world is more connected than ever before. The journey that took those early Europeans several months is a mere day’s flight by plane. We can talk instantly to anyone in the world and social media lets us keep up to date on any number of details about a person’s life.

But new circles of Strangers and Saints have also being drawn. They’ve been drawn around city dwellers versus country folks, Democrats versus Republicans, Christians versus Muslims and Evangelicals versus Progressives. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone mourning the division and vitriol that exists in our country right now. If you’re feeling that way, you’re not imagining it. Polls measuring political division, racial division and economic division are all showing a record high.

The root of all of this is, of course, fear. We all know that. But I don’t think it’s just fear of the world changing, or fear of “the other.” Those are secondary fears to a deeper fear: the fear of being known. We lash out at other people when our own fears of not being good enough take over. We shut down because we are afraid that if someone sees our vulnerability, or our flaws, or the thousand ways we’re not perfect, they will find us unlovable.

What better camouflage is there than to block ourselves off into ever smaller and smaller groups, narrowing the category of who belongs and keeping everyone else out with bluster and bravado?

***

In 2010, witnessing the growing divisions in the country, a couple of people set out to make a change. On the surface, it seems like their plan was pretty simple—they were just going to get people to talk. In their living rooms. So they called the project Living Room Conversations and started creating ways for people to get involved.

I was trained in the Living Room Conversations model last month and although it’s simple on its surface, it’s revolutionary in practice. It’s built around the simple practice of telling stories and sharing dreams. To date, they’ve created 65 conversations around topics like immigration, zero tolerance policies in education, religious freedom, race and incarceration or student debt. In short, all of the hot button topics today—you know, the ones all of the pundits and politicians are yelling at each other about on television and Twitter.

Here’s the genius of these conversations: they’re not meant to persuade or cajole. There’s no talking points. And each conversation, no matter whether you’re talking about gun control or legalizing marijuana, starts with the same three questions:

  • What sense of purpose / mission / duty guides you in your life?
  • What would your best friend say about who you are and what makes you “tick”?
  • What are your hopes and concerns for your community and/or the country?

People who have used this model say that it works wonders and I believe it because it starts with relationships. People are given the opportunity to know and love each other before they’re asked to start solving problems. They’re given a way to love each other before they can start looking for ways to hate each other.

What’s even more amazing is that people are doing it. They’re inviting others into their homes, or setting up groups in divided churches, or maybe participating in a conversation online. People are hungry for connection. They’re hungry to be known as more than someone “on the other side” of a problem.

Author Dan Allender says, “stories obligate.” Stories connect us to something greater than ourselves. Truthful storytelling enables us to learn each other’s joys and struggles, strengths and weaknesses, dreams and fears. “Stories obligate” because they remind us that we’re all in this journey together and that we all share a duty to know and to be known.

***

Just as these Living Room Conversations don’t start with our differences, they don’t end in our commonalities. There’s no pretending that everyone sees eye to eye–which, quite frankly is just another way that we hide ourselves off and refuse to be known–instead people recognize their differences and choose relationship anyway.

The call to love is a call to love intimately. Click To Tweet

In some ways, it’s much easier to love our enemies than to love, I don’t know, our families at Thanksgiving, because we keep our enemies far away from us. (Plus, we already know that we don’t like them, so we’re not upset when they disappoint us.) With the people close to us—our families, our friends, our fellow church members—love sometimes takes a lot more work. These are the people we see up close and personal. We see them before they’ve had their morning coffee, or when they’re rushing around on a Sunday morning. We know their flaws and we have every opportunity to be irritated by them.

We take a risk when we commit to loving each other; to truly love someone we must truly know them.… Click To Tweet

The bridges that we need to build to heal our world can only come through relationship. The more that we silo off into our self-categorized groups of saints and strangers, the less likely we are to do any real loving. All of our love will be conditional. It’ll be love that’s only given as long as we see eye-to-eye.

I believe that people of faith have a unique ability to play a role in the healing of the divisions that exist and it’s because we’re practiced at the work of building relationship. It’s more than just a theological commitment to love, we actually get to practice working at it. We know what it’s like to stay in relationship with others–even when we don’t agree with them–because we do it over and over and over again.  

Jesus gave his followers quite the task list: feed the hungry, care for the prisoner, protect the child. But above and beyond all of that, he instructed them to love one another.

All of these other things, these other cares and concerns of the world will tear us apart if we’re not grounded in love. But the reverse is also true. When we are grounded in love, all manner of things are possible. Differences might be overcome, flaws might be overlooked, vulnerability might be welcomed so that in the end, strangers and saints find themselves all part of the same great big circle of love. May it be so with us.

The Secret to Healing America

The Secret to Healing America

I’m not a politically vocal person, at least not outside the safety of my own home. During this election season, my husband has listened to daily commentary about the state of the campaigns but outside of a couple friends who share my political views, I don’t talk politics. I am, quite frankly, afraid of the potential conflict.  

Related: 5 Powerful Phrases for An Election Year

I’m probably right to be worried. A 2014 Pew Study found that Republicans and Democrats were more divided than previously. More troubling, they found that an increasing number of people viewed people from the other party as threats to the nation’s well being. As of that study, 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans saw the other party as threats. This is well beyond not agreeing with each other and into outright animosity, suspicion and fear.  Given the state of this presidential election, it’s clear that this trend has continued over the past two years.

Lucky for me, my neighbors have largely taken the same approach to avoiding this election. No one is sporting any presidential signs or bumper stickers for me to smile or glare at each day as I head home. A few “likes” on Facebook hint at our political affiliations but it’s not enough to spark resentment.  Even my family has enacted a tacit no-politics rule (except, of course, for the various alliances among us who agree on things).

This seems like the wisest course of action in a country of people that are positioned for battle. When Facebook posts can ruin real-life friendships and Twitter wars erupt at the slightest provocation, fight or flight appears to be our only options.  

I’m beginning to realize, though, that the non-interference approach to politics isn’t really healing the wounds of our nation. The fight or flight response to political conversation is anti-democratic. We need a better way. Click To Tweet

The avoidance approach to politics creates a façade of agreement. Taken to its logical end, it promotes the view that disagreement has no place in our relationships. We can all be friends, as long as we don’t address anything troubling, disagreeable or meaningful. We can all be family as long as we pretend to vote the same way. We can all be a church as long as we act like we’re all the same. 

As Parker Palmer says in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, “I will not ask us to dial down our differences. Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change. Partisianship is not a problem. Demonizing the other is.” 

palmer-quote-democracy

If this fight or flight response isn’t democracy in action, then it’s certainly not Christianity in action. Our very best values, the values of our government and the values of our faith affirm that people of all beliefs can love, learn from and respect one another. And this means that at a time like this, a time that’s laden with suspicion, fear and even hate we must hear each other into speech. 

I believe this: we cannot truly love our neighbor without listening to our neighbor.  We cannot truly love our neighbor without listening to our neighbor. Even when we disagree. Click To Tweet

That’s why the act of listening itself is the key to healing. We’re not all going to agree, not ever. But we can agree to hear each other. And in hearing, we can agree that we are all human, worthy of the basic human dignity of being recognized for the unique perspectives and gifts we bring to the world. 

We’re here, with only a few days left until the presidential election. Thank God almighty, because I know so many of us cannot take any more. But while the political ads might end on November 8, the real work of healing will begin November 9. And for that, we’re going to need to put on our listening ears. We’re going to need to ask others to tell their stories and share their dreams. To respond to their anger and hurt with curiousity and love rather than defensiveness. To disagree and then still smile when we pass each other on the street, or over the backyard fence, or across the table. 

This all seems so simple, this idea of listening to one another to bring greater unity. But we’ve tried out-yelling each other and that didn’t work. We’ve tried name-calling and that didn’t work. We’ve tried avoiding all “hard topics” and that didn’t work. Actually listening to each other is the only option left.  (I’ve said something similar before: Meeting Real Pain with Real Love: On Same Sex Marriage and the Way of Christ.)

Thich Naht Hahn says this about the importance of listening to each other in times of conflict: 

The other person has wrong perceptions about himself and about us. And we have wrong perceptions about ourselves and the other person. And that is the foundation for violence and conflict and war…Both sides are motivated by fear, by anger, and by wrong perception. But wrong perceptions cannot be removed by guns and bombs. They should be removed by deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving space.

This will be hard, no doubt. Not just because listening is inherently hard but because we’re trying to shift an entire culture. Most of us need to unlearn everything we’ve learned about political rhetoric. And then we’ll need to invite others along on the journey. Somehow, we’re going to have to figure out how to have conversation again—even when we don’t agree. After the election, we're going to have to figure out how to have conversation again. Click To Tweet

But I do believe that the time is right for this.

I believe that people are crying out for it, desperate to create a place where diversity is valued.

This is where we can find courage for our healing movement: once we get started, with just a few of us here and there taking the time to reach across political aisles, it will snowball and grow, becoming an avalanche of world-changers. All just hearing each other.